It’s Time to Fight Anti-Israel Hate at CUNY
Growing up in New York City, I believed that antisemitism was a disease of the past.
It has therefore been deeply unsettling to witness the resurgence at the City University of New York (CUNY) of a unique antipathy to one nation, Israel — the state of the Jewish People. Resolutions of the PSC-CUNY faculty and staff union, and the students and faculty of the CUNY School of Law, have declared that Israel embodies every evil that mankind is capable of, and that academic freedom must be jettisoned in order to boycott Israeli scholars and universities.
The demonization of Jews as interlopers who grasp what they are not entitled to, has been used to nurture grievances and build cohesion in movements through the ages.
In the current iteration, it is the Jewish state, Israel, that is fast becoming the focal point of demonic evil for many American academics, especially in the social sciences. Now the Jews, who have been reviled as foreigners in lands they have inhabited for centuries, are labeled “settler colonialists” when they establish a state in their ancient homeland after accepting an internationally endorsed partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into land set aside for the Arab and Jewish populations.
Israelis are accused of massacring Palestinians and committing genocide, even though it is Israel that makes every effort to avoid war and casualties of its attackers and strives for peace, while the Palestinians proclaim that they will annihilate the Jews and will not accept any peace agreement that leaves Israel standing.
The war against Israel waged on college campuses challenges our democracy, which rests upon shared truths and the willingness of citizens to stand up to illiberal voices, no matter how incessant, excessive, insistent, and pervasive they are.
These CUNY resolutions reach across the globe to the Middle East, a region roiled by ethnic and religious conflicts, and condemn the only democracy in the region that works to ensure the rights of all its citizens. Israel is challenged as no nation on earth is, because it seeks to maintain both democracy and security while faced with an adversary sworn to use every means to destroy it, and that incites its people against Israel from the youngest age.
The ongoing effort to erase Israel in the region and around the globe demonstrates the need for the state of Israel as a haven for Jews. Tragically, unlike other people in the Middle East who accepted partition of the Ottoman Empire into nation states, the Palestinian Arabs declared then, as they do now, that they will never accept the state of Israel. This has meant that the British Mandatory government did not accept Jewish refugees when doing so would have saved them from annihilation during the Holocaust, and that Palestinians remain the only people who were not resettled within a more ethnically homogeneous environment from among the tens of millions of refugees in the aftermath of World War II.
Academia, which should be engaged in the unfettered search for truth, has become the stomping ground of BDS, the campaign to boycott Israel and limit academic freedom so that only one side of an issue can be heard. This places CUNY on a trajectory of becoming a re-education center rather than a center of learning and discovery, an enforcer of ideological conformity rather than a battleground of ideas, and a force for exclusion rather than inclusion.
The singular hostility to Israel is devastating to heroic Palestinians who yearn for peace. It strengthens their authoritarian and terrorist leaders, and stifles ties between Palestinians and Israelis that alone can bring stability and peace to the region.
In a world that moves forward by engagement and not by boycotts, by opening rather than closing doors, CUNY can lead the way.
Chancellor Matos Rodriguez and many CUNY college presidents recently visited Israel to build bridges with scholars at Israeli universities that are at the forefront of innovation and cultural integration of all segments of Israel’s society. Recently, the inauguration of the Photonics Initiative at CUNY’s Advanced Science Research Center was celebrated by its initiating the US/Middle East Conference on Photonics, which highlighted the contributions of scientists from all countries in the Middle East and called for the free exchange of ideas.
Many at the City University see strengthened connection among all peoples in the Middle East as the road towards peace. We call on the City Council to insist that CUNY and all universities in our city live up to their mandates to push the boundaries of knowledge and break down antagonisms, and to create a campus climate in which no student needs to hide their identity to feel safe.
A resolution of the PSC-CUNY last June demonizes, delegitimates, and applies a double standard to Israel — since it condemns Israel for defending itself — and also “condemns racism in all forms, including anti-Semitism.”
It is clear the union needs help identifying its own antisemitism. It would therefore be a great boon to union members and to the citizens of New York for the New York City Council to be a model for universities in New York City by adopting a meaningful definition of antisemitism. Governor Hochul has recently highlighted the widely recognized working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which has been adopted by the US Department of State. This definition places no limit on speech but provides a tool for gauging when speech has crossed the line into antisemitism. This definition encourages spirited dialogue about the Middle East and makes clear that criticism of Israel, were it similar to criticism leveled against any other country, would not be considered to be antisemitic.
I would like to invite the members of the City Council and the citizens of New York to visit the website of our group, the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion. The website presents a deep look at Israel and attempts to demonize it, and the hostility experienced by students at CUNY. Our group presents a series of seminars and discussions, and articles from a broad range of sources that present a full picture of Israel and its place in the Middle East — which is sadly lacking at CUNY.
Azriel Genack is a Distinguished Professor of Physics at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).